These are some frequently asked questions about the discipline of simplicity. Click the questions you're interested in to read the (by no means definitive) answers.
The simplest answer is that it is the right thing to do.
The example and teaching of Jesus, from Matthew 7: 3-5 to Luke 12: 13-15 and Luke 10:38-42 suggest that we should look first to what we do, to what we can change and the ways in which we are causing suffering.
The more complicated answer is that we are part of the problem. Though we may not consider ourselves wealthy, we with roofs over our heads and food in our homes are, compared to the majority of humanity, rich. And the reason we are able to enjoy such rich lives is partly at the expense of others, partly at the expense of the planet.
We may not contribute directly to the persecution of Christians, sex trafficking or animal cruelty, but the resources we consume and the effect that supplying our desires has on the world are very much within our control.
Our changing will not solve everything, but it is a start. More importantly, it is a way for us to escape a fundamentally unsatisfying existence –Consumerism – which teaches people to seek meaning in what they can buy, consume and own.
Simplicity is a way of thinking and living that has been practiced by Christians throughout the ages. It is particularly relevant today as an alternative to the philosophy and habits of Consumerism.
Simplicity proposes that there is more to life than the clothes you wear, the gadgets you own, or the car you drive. That happiness cannot be measured in the size of your house, the amount in your bank account or in having the latest, the biggest and the best. Simplicity sees Francis of Assisi as a better role model than pop stars or professional football players and believes that too many of us Christians have been conformed to the thinking of this world and the faith it places in earthly treasures.
Simplicity is coming to the point in your life where you stop worrying about the opinions of peers or the trends of fashion, and start realising that you already have enough and that you don't need to keep on buying or acquiring more and more. Simplicity thinks that if it still works, I don't need a new one and if I don't need it I won't buy it.
Simplicity is uncommon sense. Simplicity is the belief that excessive material wealth and possessions do not make us happy, and that what we think of as 'excessive' should not be limited to just those people who have more than us. And simplicity acknowledges that much of the excess we have and keep to ourselves could be better used in helping others who truly need it.
Simplicity is not a new way of looking good by 'being ethical', but an old way of acknowledging that impressing people is less important than helping people and pleasing God through justice, mercy and humility.
Simplicity is the ultimate rejection of Mammon.
Consumerism is the zeitgeist of our age. It has been given many names, but what it comes down to is a way of life that centres almost exclusively on acquiring material possessions (and disposing of them).
Consumerism is what makes us think that shopping is a leisure activity and a fun pass-time rather than a necessary chore for survival.
Consumerism is what drives us to buy new clothes when our cupboards at home are bulging with items we bought last season, last month or last week.
Consumerism is powered by our reactions to fashions, advertising and marketing messages, and encouraged by an economic emphasis on endless growth. It has resulted in a society where malls and shopping high-streets, where we shop, have replaced town halls, churches and civic societies as the centres of social life – a fact reflected in the dominance of business centres in contempory town-planning.
Consumerism is at work every time we buy something we do not need and more so every time we buy something we did not realise we wanted.
Tony Campolo, in his book, Adventures in Missing the Point, identified consumerism with the Biblical prophetic image of Babylon – a dominant worldview that leads a given generation to reject the values of God in favour of earthly, carnal or evil values. Consumerism, he says, is the earthly value-system that competes with the values of God's kingdom, and, to an extent, is winning.
How consumerism affects us is simply that it is a philosophy that is in conflict with a truly Christian worldview. In the Christian vision, greed is bad. In consumerism, we are encouraged to buy ever more goods for ourselves. In Christian thinking, contentment is a virtue, whereas consumerist values are those of always improving our lot, our possessions, our lifestyle, no matter how lavish it may already be. Christians are taught that to covet is wrong, while consumerism's primary engine, advertising, encourages us to be dissatisfied with what we have and to want what celebrities, models and sports stars are driving, wearing or drinking.
Consumerism, as it operates in secular society, encourages people to find meaning and express their identity in what they own and the wealth they have to own more. Christianity, in contrast, teaches that we find our identiy, meaning and self-worth not in clothes, luxury goods or food, but in a relationship with God, and in serving him. How we serve him is never through seeking ourselves first or placing emphasis on earthly wealth, but through almost the opposite attitude of sacrificing earthly comforts for the sake of others who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Apart from deadening the desire in Christians to live fully surrendered, Christ-like lives (because Christians are as guilty as anyone else of falling for consumerism's charms), consumerist habits and mindsets also make many developed world consumers apathetic towards questions of eternity and life after death. As Jesus said: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Consumerism's effect on the world is the link between global economic injustice and ecological decline. Because we, as consumers, demand ever more goods, but have limited resources, we demand goods at lower prices. Phenomena such as sweat-shops, near slave-labour conditions and unfair trade are familiar to many in the church today, but the fact is that the common thread through all of them is our desire, as purchasers of goods in the wealthy developed world, for ever-cheaper, ever-increasing quantities of food, clothing, furniture, electronics and other 'consumer goods'.
Unfair trading relationships with developing nations that do not allow them to produce or export in a way that might benefit their local economies are put in place by our governments to protect our interests and wallets.
Sweatshops in Asia, where children and adults work in conditions and for wages that no western consumer would happily endure, exist only to satisfy the consumer desires of you, me and consumers in other parts of the world, despite the fact that few of us are in danger of going unclothed.
Statistics of how much we, in the developed world, consume are staggering when comapred to how the rest of the world lives. The fact is that while we may be sad that much of the world lives on less than £2 a day, the answer is not to bring everybody up to our standard of living. The planet cannot sustain it.
There is simply not enough iron ore in the Earth's crust to produce enough steel to have every human being enjoy the cars, bridges, bikes and skyscrapers we do atour rate of disposal. There is not enough space on the Earth's surface to grow enough food for every human being to consume and waste as much as we currently do.
The list of natural resources at risk is lengthy and obvious, nut what we are also running out of is places to put the results of all the manufacturing that satisfies our consumerism.
With every item that is manufactured, pollution is poured in to the air and the water. By-products are wasted, and, ultimately, the products themselves are thrown away to make room for newer, better, shinier versions. The discarded products go into land-fill, into our oceans, into vast dumps where the poor must scavenge to survive.
The electricity and mass transportation networks to keep our consumer economies running are filling the atmosphere with CO2 and leading to climate change which will have the worst affect on those who are probably already suffering in order to manufacture our goods or extract or farm the raw materials from which they are made.
Simplicity cannot solve all the problems in the world. Sorry.
But it can be a start. Just as buying Fair Trade coffee does not fix all of Africa's problems, it is a step in the right direction, and if enough people take it up it can have a profound effect.
By practicing the discipline of simplicity, by rejecting the calls of the media, fashion, advertising and even well-meaning friends to only engage with the world on an economic basis, you can not only regain some of the simple, honest joy inherent in life and available to all, but you can be a witness to that better life.
You can also know that as you disengage from the frantic modern cycle (of working in jobs we hate to make money we should not worship in order to afford things we neither want nor need), you also contribute less to human misery and the degradation of God's creation.
As Christians, we already have a head-start on this in some of our campaigns for a more meaningful, less commercial approach to events like Christmas, where we encourage others to see the true meaning, rather than a frantic, often joyless rush to buy buy buy.
Simplicity is seeing every day as a kind of Christmas, where family, love and God's plan for our lives are the real point, to be striven for rather than excess, over-indulgence and spending a lot of money.
Yes and no. That will probably be the natural outcome of a simpler lifestyle, but the core of simplicity is realising that we were created in the image of God as servants and creators and our meaning can never be found in consumption and self-focus.
Much of the discipline of simplicity revolves around letting go of our childish desires to be thought well of (and to be thought of at all), to be noticed and to think of ourselves as somehow 'okay' because of what we own or even do.
It's an ancient tradition and discipline that goes far deeper than our present circumstances.
Ah, now you're talking. Good.
There are many resources for Christians focusing on how we can disengage from consumerism and embrace the Chrostian spiritual teaching of simplicity. These are a few of my favourites, but they are by n means and exhaustive list.
The Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster is a really good place to start in terms of books, as is his very influential work, Clebration of Discipline, in which he devotes an entire chapter to the discipline of simplicity.
Both of these titles are easy enough to buy online or in bookshops, but as we are talking about reducing the amount we consume, you may want to consider getting them from a library. If you do buy them, second-hand is always a good way to go, particularly if you're buying from a charity store and even more particularly if you plan to lend them to friends as well.